In reviewing the history of the Detroit Tigers, I often think about the best seasons to be a Tigers fan. So, I am writing a series of posts listing the top 20 seasons in Tigers history. There is no specific formula for determining the best seasons, but there are some criteria which I consider carefully. Playoff appearances, especially those leading to world championships are, of course, important. Team dominance as measured by winning percentage and run differential also carries a lot of weight.
While most of the teams on the list did win a lot of games, this is
not simply a ranking of the best teams statistically. Sometimes, a
non-winning season stands out because of great individual achievements
or because the team was unique in some way. I wanted every decade to
be represented and since the Tigers have had a couple of poor decades,
this was a challenge. However, the Tigers have managed to put
together at least one campaign each decade which was memorable even if
it was not a great year in terms of wins and losses and some of those
seasons will also be included.
The entire list of 20 seasons can be found here.
From 1994 through 2005, the Tigers had the worst stretch in franchise history. Indeed, it was one of the worst for any organization ever. They suffered 12 consecutive losing seasons including 109 loses in 1996, 106 in 2002 and an AL-record 119 in 2003. They also went 19 seasons without a playoff appearance going back to 1988. They began to make improvements after 2003, but were still 20 games below .500 and a team in turmoil in 2005.
After the 2005 season, the Tigers fired manager Alan Trammell and replaced him with Jim Leyland. They also added two veteran pitchers - left-handed starter Kenny Rogers and closer Todd Jones. Finally, they had two promising rookie pitchers Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya make the team out of spring training.
With a nice mix of veterans and youth, the Tigers shocked the baseball world moving into first place in May and staying there most of the summer. On August 7, they were an amazing 76-36, 10 games up on the defending-champion White Sox and 10 1/2 ahead of the Twins. It seemed to good to be true and it actually was.
They went into a tailspin going 10-22 and their lead was down to two games over the Twins on September 10. They managed to clinch their first playoff spot since 1987 with a victory over the Royals on September 24. However, they could not win a division title, losing out to Minnesota after five straight losses to end the season.
The Tigers finished 95-67, a 24-game improvement over 2005. After many many years of generally awful pitching, everything came together perfectly as they posted a league-best 3.84 ERA. Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Roberston had their best seasons and Rogers solidified the staff with both his pitching and leadership. The big key though were the rapid rises of Verlander and Zumaya. Verlander posted a 126 ERA+ in 186 innings and won the Rookie of the Year award. Zumaya had a 1.94 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 83 innings.
Detroit's offense was little better than average finishing fifth in runs scored. Their hitting was led by shortstop Carlos Guillen (136 OPS+) and right fielder Magglio Ordonez (112 OPS+). They also got good all around play from center fielder Curtis Granderson, catcher Pudge Rodriguez and third baseman Brandon Inge among others.
The Tigers went on to beat the heavily favored Yankees in the first round of the playoffs three games to one behind some fantastic pitching by Rogers, Bonderman and Zumaya. They proceeded to sweep the Althletics in four games in the ALCS outscoring them 22-9. The climax came when Ordonez blasted a dramatic walkoff in game four to clinch the pennant. It was one of the most memorable moments in Tigers history.
They were expected to beat the Cardinals (winners of just 83 games in the regular season) in the World Series, but it didn't go as planned. After a full week off, the Tigers appeared to be rusty as they could neither hit nor field. In particular, their pitchers kept throwing wild to bases. They lost the series four games to one, the only victory coming thanks to eight innings of scoreless pitching by Rogers in game 2.
The 53 game improvement from just three years earlier made it arguably the greatest turn around story in baseball history. Despite the disappointing finish, 2006 was one of the best seasons to be a Tigers fan.
Some of data for this article were gathered from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org